Omar Shahid Hamid’s new book -- a gripping story of an investigator’s attempts to solve the mystery of a jihadi leader’s intimate correspondence
Although I was excited to learn of the publication of Omar Shahid Hamid’s second novel, I have to admit I approached it with some trepidation. Hamid’s debut novel, The Prisoner (2013) had been a fast-paced and impressive book, set in Karachi with its two main characters (middle aged policemen) navigating a difficult course amidst the stormy currents of urban politics, venality and bloodshed. That debut novel had been a thrilling and enjoyable read, but The Spinner’s Tale looked altogether less interesting.
Thankfully, my trepidation was ill-founded: this book proved pretty much as un-put-down-able as The Prisoner. The Spinner’s Tale is the story of Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi, a jihadi leader, and of a police officer’s attempts to understand more about the incarcerated militant by delving into his past, starting from his schooldays as plain Ahmed Sufi.
Central to the mystery is the militant’s relationship with his school friend Eddy, a relationship that the police officer learns of from letters the two have written to each other over the years. Fragments of this correspondence intersperse the ‘present day’ narrative and raise as many questions as they seem to answer. The ‘Sheikh’ was once a pupil at Karachi’s most elite school, depicted in the book as so posh and so like Karachi Grammar School that in the story it is simply named ‘The School’.
So how did Ahmed Sufi of The School become Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi the jihadi? How did a good student and keen cricketer from Karachi’s most prestigious educational institution become the man trained in the militant camps of Afghanistan, the man who kidnapped western tourists in Kashmir, the man who sent suicide attackers to assassinate the president and the man who later stared calmly into the camera as he slit the throat of an abducted British journalist in Pakistan?
So where is the police officer’s line of enquiry going to lead the reader to? This question persists till the final chapters but it is not the only point of interest in the story. The Spinner’s Tale is also a brilliant study of social injustice and glaring inequality. Both the Sheikh and the officer in charge of his detention, ASP Omar Abbasi, are outsiders: both are of relatively humble origins, both gifted and hardworking and unable to penetrate the bulwarks of social class and privilege or elitist old boy networks.
Both are scholarship boys who are made constantly aware of the fact that they are not from the same social class as their peers, and both then find different ways to deal with their situation.
The police officer deals with his lot by "maintaining a laser-like focus on the work in front of him" while the boy from The School discovers that his talent for oratory and manipulation can, literally, take him places.
But the book depicts the callousness of Pakistani society, with its horrific economic disparity and class prejudice, as nearly as reprehensible as jihadi brutality and violence. This social polarisation is also magnified by the fact that although the story unfolds during the month of Ramzan, several of the elitist characters rather insensitively forget this fact.
Not a single character from this world of privilege manages to make a positive impression in this story: whether it is the mild mannered Eddy, the troubled Sana or the extremely unsympathetic DIG known as "the Englishman" who though has little concern for the men he was leading "was real stickler for doing things by the book…and worshipped the 1934 Police Rules", none of the upper class characters manage to redeem themselves in any way.
Language is also emphasised as a tool of power: the jihadi sheikh reflects, as he is about to execute a western hostage, that all foreigners seemed "to believe they are safe with an English-speaking gentleman…as if being able to recite a few lines from Shakespeare is a character certificate on its own."
A conversation between the Sheikh and the ASP also underlines this post-colonial imbalance of power where the imprisoned Jihadi almost humiliates his captor, the police officer, simply because of better pronunciation and greater command of the English language.
As far as the book’s title goes, the Spinner refers to the fact that both school friends shared a deep love of cricket and both were spin bowlers. The spin duo played together in a time when their love for cricket was a joyous almost innocent interest. This passion for the game subsequently becomes, as the story unfolds, associated with nationalism and regional rivalry, torture and subjugation, charm and manipulation.
But of course it’s not just the spin of the cricket ball that comes to mind with this title: The Spinner’s Tale could equally refer to the manipulation of information, the spinning of a narrative on the basis of a particular agenda. And on the subject of titles, it is rather interesting to note that this book could be titled ‘The Prisoner’ as aptly Hamid’s first book actually was. Perhaps that is what happens when an investigator and police officer turns novelist uses his own experiences to create thrilling and unsettling narratives -- not just about crime fighting and investigation but also about the process and mind games of incarceration.
The Spinner’s Tale is a gripping, fast-paced story. Omar Shahid Hamid’s book is sometimes difficult and often very dark but is thought-provoking and raises intriguing questions about militancy and society, privilege and power.